By Rachel Zimny
This is a chant the internet landscape is all too familiar with. The movement around ending Brittney Spears’ conservatorship has been active for over a decade. However it’s gaining more publicity once again as her court date comes up.
Anyone old enough with a vested interest in pop culture remembers Brittney’s very public breakdown in 2007 when she shaved her head bald and swung at a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella. More, of course, was happening behind the scenes. The initial event that led to Brittney’s conservatorship is the 5150, involuntary psychiatric hold, that she was placed on in early 2008 for refusing to relinquish custody of her children to her ex-husband, Kevin Federline. She was sent to the psychiatric hospital twice under the same 5150 order. However immediately after she was admitted the second time, she was placed in an emergency, temporary conservatorship under the urging of her father, Jamie Spears.
A conservatorship is a court ordered relationship where one individual who is deemed physically or mentally disabled, or under-aged, is under the guardianship of another. Mental disability is the key term here in Brittney’s case, as the term covers people who are suicidal, psychotic, or show signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s. Also covered in this definition is someone who is “disabled to the point of being unable to make legal, financial, and medical decisions” for themselves, according to the ACLU.
But how exactly is that quantified? Sometimes it’s very clear that a person cannot take care of themselves, like when someone older develops Alzheimer’s, but it’s not always so cut and dry.
The definition of mental disability is vague and inconsistent. Legally, diagnoses like ADHD, autism, and depression are counted in the Americans with Disabilities act, however they are not generally regarded as such in workplace environments. It is generally a disadvantage to disclose an “invisible” disability in the workplace if it’s at all hideable. There is rampant and obvious discrimination towards people with disabilities in public settings and many work environments. This isn’t even touching on cases of people with physical disability, which are even more visible.
Under the law though, anyone with these relatively common “invisible” diagnoses could be considered “mentally disabled” enough to fall into a conservatorship.
I’ll say this before I delve into my opinion: most cases of conservatorship are highly nuanced and complicated and not all of them are bad. The issue, though, is how easily abuse can be pushed through a conservatorship, like what’s been happening with Brittney for the last 10 years. The truth of the matter is a conservatorship is a legal stripping of a person’s power over themselves and their choices “for their own good.” That’s just a fact. These circumstances are primed for abuse if the guardian chooses to do so with absolutely no repercussions. One person in this relationship loses many of their civil rights; they become hyper vulnerable to mistreatment.
And this is how so much of disability legislation works in the United States. A disabled person’s civil rights are different from the rest of the population. The average income for someone on Social Security Disability Insurance is well below the poverty line, as they receive a maximum of $735 per month from the government. Once a disabled person gets married, these rates change. The most a disabled couple can receive from the government is $1,194 monthly.
Brittney Spears’ situation is a little different, of course; she is forced to work and pay for her family’s expenses endlessly until her father says otherwise. The majority of people who are diagnosed with a disability in the US, however, struggle to find work at all. Many employers assume people with disabilities are less productive and less qualified socially. Many more refuse to make accommodations for them.
The lack of resources, opportunity, and financial stability alongside the regular and blatant discrimination disabled people face in the US is fucked up, and it’s a topic that a lot of people don’t discuss.
There is a current push for the expansion of Social Security benefits, which is something. The current payout amounts have not, after all, been updated since 1972.
You might be thinking that’s sad but still separate from your own life experience. Well, other than those with disabilities these low dollar amounts affect the elderly as about 65 million people are currently at the federal retirement age of 65. It’s easy for the public to ignore people with disabilities if they don’t know anyone directly, however, we can all hope to grow old. Anyone who lives into their golden years will most certainly be affected by the shoddy rules in place.
Brittney Spears’ case is not just about her family’s abuse of power, but about how our government allows people with disabilities to be abused. Although her situation is unique, she is not the only person who has lost her basic rights through a diagnosis. She also wont be the last to do so.
As a lifetime fan, I can only hope that she is freed from her current situation. I hope, too, that through this publicity, the cultural zeitgeist begins to turn to how we treat people with disabilities. There is much more to be done.